1. Introduction

Susan Kruse with contributions from Malcolm Bangor-Jones, Lynne McKeggie and Ben Thomas

Focus of the Highland Archaeological Research Framework

The Highland Regional ScARF covers the area of the Highland Council, the largest council area in Scotland – it is often equated to the size of Belgium. It has varied topography (see Chapter 3) which has influenced settlement patterns for over 14,000 years.

Map of the Highlands showing roads and terrain, with the different regions outlined with black lines and labelled eg Sutherland, Nairnshire etc.
Map 1.1: Administrative area of The Highland Council and regions/sub-regions used in the Highland Archaeological Research Framework. ©Alexander Gallacher

In 2012 the National Scottish Archaeological Framework (ScARF) was published (hereafter National ScARF). It assessed the current state of archaeology in Scotland, looking at what we know, where we have gaps, and then it used this to suggest areas of future research. It was soon realised that regional overviews would be desirable. A Regional Archaeological Research Framework for Argyll (RARFA) was published in 2017, and there are several  others in preparation. In addition some thematic frameworks have been published.

The process of drawing up a Highland Archaeological Research Framework began in 2018 with a symposium that had the aim to show where the picture is similar to that outlined in National ScARF, where it is different, and what gaps exist which future research could fill. The Highland Archaeological Research Framework takes its definition of archaeology from Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy, published in 2015, where archaeology is ‘the study of the human past through its material remains’. As a result, the focus is on both the prehistoric and the historic past.

By any measure, the Highlands has a rich archaeological heritage, spanning from the Late Upper Palaeolithic to modern times. There are 1298 Scheduled Monuments, 3049 Listed buildings, nine Inventory Battlefields, 49 Gardens/Designed Landscapes, four Historic Marine Protected Areas, 30 Conservation Areas, and over 60,000 monument records in the Highland Historic Environment Record (HER). New sites are being added continually on the heritage databases the Highland HER and Scotland-wide Canmore (though a backlog exists, see Chapter 2.1). Some of these sites are of national importance with others of regional or local importance. Compared to many other areas of Scotland, the limited rebuilding and nature of land-use change, especially in upland areas, has resulted in good survival of many monuments.

As part of the project, data cleansing and new inputs, particularly of finds, were undertaken for the Highland HER and over 6000 records were updated. In addition, many of the over 50 Highland museums were contacted and visited, resulting in 1,341 new and 2,678 updated finds records. Although there is still work to be done, this project has produced a more up to date and representative overview of discoveries across the Highland area.

Distribution maps, complete with underpinning datasheets, have been produced. They provide a base-point for research into some of the most widespread or significant archaeological monuments and artefacts. The information from datasheets is mainly derived from the Highland HER and Canmore. The datasheets will need revising in future as more information is added to these resources. Data from more recent investigations may also still to be added. As a result, these datasheets must be viewed as a research tool to build upon.

An attempt has also been made to gather published radiocarbon dates from across the region, though the context of each needs to be assessed on a case by case basis (see Chapter 2.5). Radiocarbon dates are calibrated at a 95.4% probability unless specified. Details and sources for the dates can be found in Datasheet 2.1, and also see discussion in Chapter 2. The datasheets and tables derived from them can be added to in the future.

In addition, as part of the project skills workshops were rolled out for lithic identification, pottery identification and bone analysis in order to up-skill both professional and amateur archaeological contributors.

Throughout the project, the intent has been to involve as many people as possible, and for the result to be accessible, not only for experts but also for those with just a general interest.

Previous Work

Over the years, Highland Region has seen a great deal of antiquarian interest and excavation. One of the first excavations in Scotland was at Knockfarrel vitrified hillfort (MHG7152) in the late 18th century (Williams 1777). Some of these antiquarian archaeologists were from outwith the Highlands, including Anderson, Rhind, Curle and Childe, but others were local. Colourful characters were involved in exploring the past such as Odo Blundell, a monk at Fort Augustus Abbey who researched and even did underwater exploration of Highland crannogs in the early 19th century (see Case Study Highland Crannogs and Odo Blundell). Much of what we know about Highland rock art is the result of fieldwork by school inspector William Jolly. Early local excavators included the indefatigable Caithness landowner Tress Barry (Heald and Barber 2015), Lady Duff-Dunbar of Ackergill, Caithness (whose collection is in the former Caithness Horizons Museum – now renamed the North Coast Visitor Centre), Rev. Joass of Golspie who worked in the eastern Highlands, Dr William Maclean who excavated and collected material in the Dingwall and Black Isle region, and the Countess de Latour on Skye. Their work in the Highlands is a mixed blessing, resulting in a large body of material, collected before modern techniques and dating.

Visitors to the area, particular from the second half of the 18th century, and some local residents have provided useful accounts. Our knowledge of many sites and finds owes a debt to the interested surveyors of the first Ordnance Survey in the 19th century. The story of the antiquarian investigations remains to be collated, and would provide a useful insight into early collections.

In recent years the relative lack of investment in the Highlands has resulted in less developer-led archaeology than in many other areas of Scotland. The main exception is Inverness, which has seen a significant increase in developer-funded excavation in the last decades, with the results slowly percolating into the public domain. There have been a number of large research projects throughout the Highlands, many highlighted in this regional ScARF. The Highlands also has a vigorous community heritage presence increasingly contributing to this picture, with nearly 100 heritage organisations and over 50 museums and archives. These are listed in Datasheet 1.1, where many organisations and museums have contributed information about their work and provided further contact details.

No overall account of Highland archaeology exists, although there are regional studies and surveys (discussed in Chapter 3). The Highland Archaeological Research Framework therefore fills a gap in itself, and will be a tool to use for years to come. The format of the website allows for additional data to be contributed, which is to be encouraged.


In order to allow comparisons with National ScARF, the Highland Archaeological Research Framework has a chronological focus. The following chronological periods have been adopted (though with an emphasis on the circa imprecision):

  • Late Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic: c 12,000 – c 4000 BC (Chapter 4)
  • Neolithic: c 4000 – c 2500 BC (Chapter 5)
  • Chalcolithic and Bronze Age: c 2500 – c 800 BC (Chapter 6)
  • Iron Age: c 800 BC – AD 300 (Chapter 7)
  • Early medieval: c AD 300 – c AD 1000 (Chapter 8)
  • Medieval : c AD 1000 – c AD 1500 (Chapter 9)
  • Post-medieval: c AD 1500 – present (Chapter 10)

Each chronological chapter (and Chapter 3, Land and Environment) is structured in the same way, with an Introduction; Environmental Evidence; Settlement Evidence; Evidence of Daily Life including food and material culture; Craft and Industry; Religion and Ritual; Transport and Movement; and finally, Conflict. The introduction focusses on the strengths and weakness of our current evidence for each period. These are then explored more fully in the final subheadings, Research Questions and Research Recommendations.

Chapter 2 discusses the sources that are available, many of which are multi-period and apply to other areas as well as the Highlands. Similarly, Chapter 3, Land and Environment, addresses multi-period issues of topography and the environment, as well as providing a multi-period discussion of the other subheadings.

A large number of Case Studies have also been contributed to the Research Framework, showcasing both nationally famous sites such as High Pasture Cave and other lesser-known sites and objects which deserve to be better appreciated.

Uses of This Framework

The archaeology of the Highlands is of interest to a wide range of people. This framework provides an overview for both general readers and specialist researchers. It is intended that it will be a resource that can used by people working, both professionally and voluntarily, in the archaeology and heritage sectors across the Highlands.

Archaeology can also provide inspiration for other disciplines. A number of local projects highlight the links between local heritage and creative writing, permanent and ephemeral art installations, photography, and other creative and sporting pursuits, as well as scientific research.  Here the National Lottery Heritage Fund has been much involved, with its emphasis on attracting new and diverse audiences.

Highland archaeology is an under-tapped resource for tourism. The Highland economy relies heavily on tourism, and the knowledge and promotion of the region’s heritage should factor into broader economic development and sustainability strategies. Thus far archaeology is too often viewed as separate and at risk where competing agendas and budgets are proposed, despite the fact that the process of development can destroy archaeological evidence.

A Visit Scotland survey published in 2017 found that over half of the visitors came to the Highlands because of the region’s history and culture, a higher percentage than many other areas of Scotland. A Strategy for Heritage produced for Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) in 2018 concluded that heritage makes a significant contribution to the Highland economy, with archaeology being a significant factor within that, and that it has the potential to contribute even more if supported and managed correctly. The potential to integrate the heritage in the Highlands into Tourism is huge and should be further explored, learning from areas such as Orkney.

There is much information within the Highland Archaeological Research Framework which could be of interest to local tourist centres, local heritage groups and museums. The challenge that remains is finding ways to enable these organisations to find and extract relevant information. Still, the potential to create trails, or to integrate into local projects and displays exists, and creating ways to engage with groups that provide guidance should be a follow on action.

Archaeology should not be viewed as solely of interest to tourists however. The archaeology of the region makes a major contribution to inhabitants’ sense of place, and their health and wellbeing. The large number of community courses and visitors to fieldwork clearly demonstrate this interest. More could be done to build on this, for example by simply placing plaques and information boards on sites where archaeology has been found during development works, such as sites of recent discoveries at Inverness. Further links with formal and informal groups, such as dog walkers and mountaineering groups, can and should be developed. The Historic Environment Team of the Highland Council and many of the projects Archaeology for Communities in the Highlands (ARCH) has been involved with install geocaches, with the aim of tempting people to heritage sites they might not otherwise visit.

For a long time, the Highlands have been a region of primary production. How people have exploited the region’s resources in the past and used them to create employment should resonate with communities today.  Are there lessons we can learn from this history, with concepts like sustainable development or circular economy in mind? Research on ancient woodlands that has informed modern planting (Davies 2011; Sybenga 2020) is only one example of such collaboration. With a growing emphasis on marine renewables now would be a great time to focus on this aspect of the region’s heritage and consider what it can tell us that can be applied to the future.

About the Creation of HighARF

The Highland Archaeological Research Framework was written during the Covid pandemic that began in early 2020. As a result there was virtually no access to libraries during the latter stages of the project and work is ongoing to complete the extensive bibliography. The Datasheets provided are the first step when undertaking research, but are inevitably incomplete. These will be updated periodically as more information is added to the Highland HER and Canmore.

It has always been the intention that the regional research frameworks be subject to change and revisions. The aim is to continually update and refresh the frameworks as new information comes to light or as research questions are answered. The website format allows updates, corrections and additions to be incorporated, while still allowing the original version to also be viewed in perpetuity. Although an extensive consultation was undertaken for the draft chapters there may still be information that is missing or different perspectives that could be added. Please get in touch directly with ScARF if you have any thoughts, additions or corrections that you think should be incorporated into the Highland Archaeological Research Framework.

Eventually, the research questions will be directly linked to Discovery and Excavation in Scotland and OASIS (the reporting platforms for archaeological work in Scotland and the UK). This will allow new archaeological work, which helps to shed light on the questions in this research framework, to be highlighted and added in order to ensure the research framework remains current.


The Highland Archaeological Research Framework was funded by Historic Environment Scotland and supported by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. The Pilgrim Trust provided funding for a complementary project to help with inputting finds information into the HER.

Many people contributed to the Highland Archaeological Research Framework over the three years of the project. These include: a steering group of Jacquie Aitken, Malcolm Bangor-Jones, Cathy Dagg, Meryl Marshall, Lynne McKeggie, Iain Robertson, Helen Spencer, Roland Spencer-Jones, Grace Woolmer-White, and Kirsty Cameron, Andy Puls and Ian Scrivener-Lindley of the Highland Council Historic Environment Team.

The project was led and managed throughout by Susan Kruse, Learning and Engagement Manager at Archaeology for Communities in the Highlands (ARCH), who also wrote and edited the majority of the chapters. Grace Woolmer-White was the project officer on the project for two years, involved in HER enhancement, data cleansing and compilation, writing case studies and producing maps.

Co-authors, contributors for chapters, speakers at the conference and people who provided consultation responses for the original drafts generously donated time and expertise, and are credited in the individual chapters. This Research Framework could not have been created without the input of so many people across the sector to which the project team are very grateful.

National Museums Scotland kindly allowed access to their catalogue and to key artefacts in their collection and the Research Library at National Museums Scotland also kindly copied some articles and responded to queries during lockdown. Many Highland museums responded to questionnaires and allowed access to their archives and objects. Emily Freeman and Ella Paul of the Treasure Trove Unit also provided information on Treasure Trove finds in the region.

Simon Gilmour (Director) and Emma O’Riordan of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland helped with the conception and design of the original project and managed the funding application process. Helen Spencer (ScARF Project Manager) and Leanne Demay (ScARF Project Officer) of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland helped guide the process from the start of the project through to creating the final website pages. They were assisted with copy-editing the text by Audrey Scardina.

Alexander Gallacher ran dates through calibration software, and assisted with administration and organisation of events. Katrina and Gordon Gallacher sourced articles during lockdown.

A final thank you to everyone who has helped in the project and answered numerous queries and emails over the past three years!




Case Study: Highland Crannogs and Odo Blundell